Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Is Paris turning?

When you think of Paris, what comes to mind? The Arc de Triomphe? The Eiffel Tower? The Louvre? Food? Napoleon? Culture, history, heritage, essentially, then, and for many that would seem perfectly fine because Paris is all of these. But to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, this misrepresents his country’s capital. He feels Paris is a city whose image is stuck in the past, designed to appeal to tourists, a city which is not ‘now’. And now also means then, particularly that autumn of 2005 when rioting in the poor banlieues by disaffected youth of immigrant backgrounds came to symbolise a city where not only the architecture was old but one whose demographic mortar was crumbling as well.

In 2007, Sarkozy announced a reshaping of Paris for the future, using architecture and planning to cure its ills as well as invigorate its economy. A dangerous step to take, one might think, given that both Paris and London have bitter previous experience, both foreseen and unexpected, of similar decisions. The curators of an exhibition summarising the responses of ten firms of architects, designers and urban planners to this challenge certainly thought so, punningly entitling it Le Grand Pari(s), a word play on ‘Greater Paris’ but also, loosely, ‘the big bet’.

So where does one start?

Paris today is a melange of its arrondissements, some classy, some less so. The tourist seldom strays beyond the inner hub save for the odd foray to the outskirts, and wherever he goes his experience is likely to be a pleasant one. Residents may have a similar view, depending on who they are. Architecturally the city has kept its skyscrapers firmly corralled in La Defense to the north west, but that has not restricted a wealth of high quality contemporary buildings from emerging in the city core. But that core is the problem. How big should Paris be?

It has, of course, been growing, in common with almost every other capital. Organic expansion and annexation led to masterplans, which attempted to balance green space with urban areas. The events of 2005 showed that the physical and sociological barrier of the peripherique ring road demands attention. Consideration of size inevitably includes discussion as to composition – what should Paris contain? Should it be content with a tourist picture postcard image like that of Jerusalem, Athens or Venice, or should it seek to be a sound, thriving, mixed and high-tech capital?

Certainly the exhibition, held at the new La Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine museum in 2009, was keen to contextualise the proposals as reaching far beyond central Paris. Indeed, each firm’s ideas are dramatic, original and evidence having been touched by that child-like itch to remodel, rebuild and plan on a grand scale. And it is that scale that differentiates Sarkozy’s scheme from, say, the Grand Projects of Francois Mitterand and even the city-wide clearances of Baron Haussman in the 19th century, since it is nothing less than the entire Greater Paris area that is the target here.

All, though, will be keen not to repeat the crude social engineering of the 20th century, or the more nuanced but still unsatisfactory ideas of zoning which pervaded town planning for decades within that era. Positive direction, though, is still very much on the menu; a city “can no longer be a simple residue of human activity”, says Sarkozy, rather poetically.

To that end a scientific ‘cell’ is providing advice to all of the respondents, and the first step of a two-stage process was research and application of that research to give a diagnostic forecast. All very French, but the research did extend to the mass metropolises of South America, including Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. The latter is a planned capital from the period mentioned, and must have yielded some lessons.

The cell proposed various themes for respondents to consider as a result: governance, centrality, connection (“individuals increasingly wish to master several spaces of differing sizes simultaneously”, the team concluded perceptively), sprawl, logistics, mobility (of goods, people and data), undeveloped sites (need they be filled?), proximity (a more subtle version of zoning) and segregation (ditto).

Unsurprisingly, ecological concerns are to the fore, whilst transport links into and around greater Paris’s existing districts are also seen as key.

The initial responses are fascinating. Specific architectural plans are minimal at this stage, buildings appearing merely as sketched whim or illuminated blocks of plastic. But there are hints of what might yet be, framed by a stated aim to loosen the restrictions on towers…

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners suggest a compact, sustainable, equal and connected city, created by greening over rail routes and inhabited bridges, this last a preoccupation of Rogers himself. A new, underground RER rail service and a tram system linking the suburbs would supplement these ‘armatures’. One thousand small projects would be scattered throughout the city. All this was presented via an astonishingly assured large-scale animated display rather like a benign version of the 1980s video game Missile Command.

Descartes take their solution back to the brief, proposing Paris not as a single city but as comprising 20 sub-cities of 500,000 residents each. Such a size elsewhere in the world equates to Dresden, Liverpool, Dublin, Florence and Stuttgart – pleasant places to be, with a balance of culture and dynamism. In Paris they would be interwoven with vegetation and would re-use small spaces. The scheme specifically describes the result as “functional space, not a museum”, further linking it back to Sarkozy’s fears.

AUC uses stations and hubs to generate dense, mixed-use areas, based on “places of residence, of production or of passage”. Clusters would also be developed, and electric cars would be used.

Christian de Portzamparc employs biological metaphors to describe his scheme. Nodes, rhizomes and organs replace centres, routes and places. An overhead metro for the peripherique and a new central business district at a merged Gare du Nord/Gare de L’est station fulfil in one way the president’s desire for an emergent economy in the city centre.

Antoine Grumbach interprets the challenge more widely than any other participant, thrillingly so in fact. He imagines a single green valley city along the Seine river opened up to the sea, a Paris - Rouen - Le Havre axis. The ultimate rural idyll, farming and green energy would be the major economic forces and the river plus a new TGV line would provide transport. It’s a breathtaking concept whose wholeheartedness brings a smile to the face and whose ambitious scale is shown in the relief-map model displayed in the exhibition.

AJN/ACD take a different view again, musing on whether a green densification of small-scale local units of habitation might bring about the desired effect. This is a softer, agglomerative approach rather than a top-down prescription for living – the opposite, perhaps, of the Corbusian unité d'habitation ethic. At transport interchanges ‘high points’ – vertical eco-cities – are sited, though, something much more in line with Jeanneret’s grand statement architecture after all.

Studio 9 emphasise porosity, mending fractures in the fabric of the city and stressing “absolute accessibility”. Building on the Parisian tradition of promenades, parks and gardens, parkways are formed as part of a transport lattice present every couple of kilometres.

LIN mapped intensity of movement and activity to establish micro-centres. These would be linked by bus routes to provide the needed mobility.

Castro uses the topography of the area to map its centres of future population, features in the landscape acting as symbolic monuments.

MVRDV takes a more radical view of densification, shrinking Paris to just 30 square kilometres by adding storeys to existing structures, building over the peripherique and burying infrastructure. Extending Paris’s airports in a forest is here suggested as a zero-sum game for a “Paris plus petit”.

Quite how – or even if – any of these versions of the Greater Paris project will ever move from paper and pixel to concrete and glass is naturally impossible to predict with any accuracy. In the main Paris has a positive history of political leaders’ architectural impositions on the city, though the vast scope and social science origins of Sarkozy’s vision are of a wholly different order and are likely to affect its path to fruition.

Whether such a vision is to be welcomed or abhorred in the first place rather depends on your view as to how a city should grow, what it should be and who should have a say in any of this, and continental minds tend to see these questions in different ways.

Whatever happens, it’s a fair bet that a visit to Paris in 2030 will reveal some new landmarks alongside the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower and Louvre. Plus ça change?

Paris - Rogers. davies

Richard Rogers and Mike Davies (in red) with their presentation model (Elysee – D. Noizet) and an image from their scheme (RSHP)

Paris - roger
Paris  -Portzamparc_Annulairerapide

Christian de Portzamparc's overhead metro for the peripherique (Christian de Portzamparc)

Paris - grumbach

Grumbach's river city (Grumbach)

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